An Intriguing Innovation in Academic Publishing

Giant-BookIn academic publishing, there is a long tradition of “The Big Book of Everything”. These edited, multi-authored tomes have titles like “The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine”, “The Comprehensive Textbook of Substance Abuse” and “The Annual Review of Psychology”. They comprise a huge number of chapters written by respected figures in the field.

Having your field’s Big Book of Everything on your shelf or in your department library is incredibly handy both for established experts and students because, obviously, they’ve got everything in them even if it can’t be at a fine level of detail. On the other hand, they are as portable as anvils and they cost a mint.

Enter an innovation of which I just learned after agreeing to write a chapter in a forthcoming Big Book of Everything: The publisher is going to let each buyer order the subset of chapters he or she wants rather than hawking the work as an all-or-nothing venture.

I would love to hear everyone’s speculations on how this will affect authors, editors, students and academic fields. Here are a few ideas:

(1) Affordability is much higher. A professor who would not assign such a costly book in order to expose students to a half dozen selected chapters can now assign the book of just those six at a more reasonable cost.

(2) Editorial control is much lower. An editor of a Big Book of Everything usually tries to have some consistency and cross-connection between chapters. This will become harder to impose on authors when the book is not going to be sold as a whole. This may make some people less likely to serve as editor whereas others may become moreso as one of the principal editorial tasks fades from consideration.

(3) Knowledge becomes more fractured. Everyone’s Big Book of Everything will become a Smaller Book of Some Things, with potentially less overlap in what everyone knows and is expected to know.

(4) Authors of some chapters will get a far larger readership as purchasers can get access to their work without buying a whole book. Other authors who could not have driven book sales by themselves will lose readers as the more popular chapters on whose coattails they would otherwise have ridden are now free to depart the binding without carrying their less popular brethren along.

(5) Publishers could win or lose depending on the economic viability of this new model. The gamble is that enough more people will buy chunks of the book to make up for the lower revenue per sale relative to people who used to buy the whole thing. Is that a winning gamble? I have no idea.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “An Intriguing Innovation in Academic Publishing”

  1. I was gonna respond with basically the same thing. One could imagine a sort of section of wikipedia comprised of “big page of links” articles, edited by consortia of noted academics in various areas.

    Paper is so dead. By which I don’t mean printouts. Just paper dissemination.

  2. I have been struggling, with notable lack of success thus far, to bring this idea to my state bar organization, which is dominated by people who think in terms of authors and texts (complete tomes of whatever authors deem to be a subject) rather than thinking in terms of how lawyers actually use the material. I’ve been struggling to explain the Idea of exploding the hefty tomes into their component chapters and even sections, so that the customers can string together the material in the way that makes the most sense for them and their practice (and so the sections can be kept up to date readily, instead of having the whole tome go out of date before it is finally revised in a cycle that takes several years), even if it means choosing several sections from (gasp!) different books.

    There’s no reason in the world that every lawyer can’t be given a complete menu of all authoritative content published by the state bar and fl merrily clicking through it to have the chosen sections assembled in whatever order and number of volumes she deems most efficient for her purposes, and have it issued to her in an a PDF that she can annotate with pdfexpert or iannotate or even specify hardcopy printing (desktop publishing) with her choice of binder colors or even her law firm’s logo. Whenever a section changes, she gets the new content delivered to her inbox, and changes are much more frequent, since the expert authors only have to update smaller chunks as case law and statutes change.

    Even better, the audience can constantly provide feedback to the author, with user ratings for each discrete chunk, and comments just as with blog posts, and these comments can be themselves rated for quality by other readers, so that the top rated most useful comments gravitate to the top. Add to that all the material in the public domain statutes and cases) and each reader can create a perfectly tailored product.

    Essentially, what we have to do is stop fixating on media (online or paper) and start thinking instead of these expert volumes as an opportunity for an asynchronous ongoing colloquial exchange or symposium with as many breakout sessions as are useful (each discrete chunk of content being a breakout session). Let readers build the volumes by assembling the chunks in the way that is best for them.

    1. Great points. I am particularly taken by your observation “instead of having the whole tome go out of date before it is finally revised in a cycle that takes several years”. In most fields there are areas that are established and areas that are emerging, and the latter must be updated more often in light of new findings. But if all the chapters are tied together into ye old comependium of everything, you are left with the rotten choice of having one section be dreadfully out of date or selling people an “updated” chapter regarding an established area which really has nothing new to say.

  3. The idea seems self-defeating. Apparently, the whole point of having such a “big book of everything” is that it’s a handy reference guide to, well, everything because it has a little bit of everything in a particular area of study and is a helpful guide to the whole field and can point the reader towards further reading once he finds the specific point he or she is looking for. If that’s the purpose of such a book, how is it possible for a reader to know in advance which parts he needs and which parts he will probably never need?

  4. Keith, you provide the content (most likely for free or for a copy of the dead tree version) and the publisher monetizes it. In the past you would have been prevented from offering that content for free on your website, but it’s my understanding that now, if the Federal government paid for the research, you can publish it as well — perhaps after an exclusive period.

    Do you own the copyright, or does the publisher? The last time I wrote a handbook/encyclopedia article, I successfully changed the terms to permit me to put the piece on the web — which I did through academia.edu.

    1. Because I have a federal hospital appointment in addition to my private university appointment, virtually every article I have written in my career is in the public domain.

  5. As a historian, there is a lot less of this Big Book of Everything thinking than in many other disciplines. We do have compilations on certain subject areas, but these are almost always extracts of larger, stand-alone monographs.

    This discussion reminds me of cable TV and the fact you have to buy the whole package (100+ channels) to get the handful of channels you really want. It would be great if they let you order what’s wanted, a la carte, but the cable companies will never do that until too late and they’re already suffering badly from the competition of the internet’s a la cart offerings — which is just about now.

    As for this resulting in worthwhile, but less “popular” materials never seeing the light of day, I can see such a situation with cable TV consumers. Among academia, one would hope there is less of a herd mentality. Scholars should be seeking out the most useful and compelling materials, regardless of whether or not some editing team chose to include them in a printed compilation.

    1. This discussion reminds me of cable TV and the fact you have to buy the whole package (100+ channels) to get the handful of channels you really want

      Very good analogy. One closer to home is that journals are now bundled by publishers for sale to university libraries.

      And I take you point about history, which I suspect would applies in most of the humanities. Big books of everything seem to predominate in the wet and social sciences.

  6. As a user of such, I can only applaud this idea, although I understand the many reasons for bundling.

    Keith, more mundane Q: great photo. Any idea if I could re-use it? I.e., source, rights?

  7. Thoughts:

    1. Academic publishers are rapacious and will raise the price of a few chapters to equal the current cost of a comparable book (probably in the range of 25 to 60 per chapter). The entire book price will be doubled or tripled over comparable tomes today.

    2. The publishers will vigorously and sometimes inappropriately defend their copyright. Are you sure they won’s squawk about you publishing your chapter for free?

    3. Academics won’t notice because access will be folded into the library subscription. They may be surprised if they want to purchase a personal copy.

    4. It’s a marketing gimmick combined with a small amount of incremental revenue. The marketing gimmick is telling their subscribers that the value (of the increasingly unaffordable subscription) is even better since it includes the entire library/book while the book’s list price has doubled or tripled. The small incremental revenue comes from those people and institutions so price-insensitive (or ignorant which can be the same thing) that they pay list.

    5. This is exactly what you would expect as you lose the middle class. Prices gravitate to a bimodal distribution (very low or free for those without money/access and very high or a perk for those with money/access).

    6. Finally, the academic publishing bubble is about to burst (for at least this type of copy). They may have killed Aaron Swartz, but I don’t think they can hold back the dam of Wikipedia forever.

  8. If you want to monetize something like this then figure out a way to create micropayments for Wikipedia contribution(s) tied to quality, quantity, and reputation.

  9. I’m sorry, but all I could think of was this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bj2vRrlCMA#t=5m43s

    The actual use would probably be better served by online distribution: articles can be accessed randomly via search, content can be corrected or updated instantly, subscribers need only pay for what they actually use, publication cost is comparatively low.

    On the other hand, it may be difficult to engage competent editors and contributors due to the credibility Catch-22 (e.g. Wikipedia). Then too, publishers are usually concerned with monetization (and consequently copyright), and pretty soon we are into Swartzian territory.

    The cable channel analogy exemplifies the old/new media conflict: it is technically feasible to offer channels or even shows a la carte, but the business models haven’t caught up. It is much simpler to buy new legislation enshrining the current business model.

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